Pilot Counsel

Pilots' driving records continue to be troublesome

February 1, 2007

John S. Yodice, AOPA's legal counselor, has been a pilot for more than 40 years. He owns a Cessna 310.

Many pilots continue to lose their piloting privileges because of an obscure federal aviation regulation that requires the reporting to the FAA of some state driving infractions. I am surprised at how widespread the problem is. Virtually all of these violations are unintentional. Pilots need to be warned.

FAR 61.15(e), in its simplest form, requires that a pilot report to the FAA any so-called "motor vehicle action" taken against him or her. And the report must be made within 60 days of the motor vehicle action.

Several things make this seemingly simple regulation complicated. First and foremost, pilots don't associate an automobile traffic stop or sobriety checkpoint with the FAA and flying. When pilots become involved in such a local police or court procedure, the pilot is almost exclusively preoccupied with dealing with that problem rather than worrying about the FAA. The increasingly low blood-alcohol and other threshold limits exacerbate the local problem, which is often resolved satisfactorily. It's a real stretch for a pilot to connect the local problem with the FAA. Second, the regulatory definition of a motor vehicle action is complicated, especially because of the different procedures states use to enforce their traffic laws. Third, where and how the report must be made to the FAA, and how this requirement integrates with the similar questions asked on the FAA medical application form, add complications.

Here is the regulatory definition of "motor vehicle action." There are actually three separate definitions: "1) A conviction after November 29, 1990, for the violation of any Federal or State statute relating to the operation of a motor vehicle while intoxicated by alcohol or a drug, while impaired by alcohol or a drug, or while under the influence of alcohol or a drug; 2) The cancellation, suspension, or revocation of a license to operate a motor vehicle after November 29, 1990, for a cause related to the operation of a motor vehicle while intoxicated by alcohol or a drug, while impaired by alcohol or a drug, or while under the influence of alcohol or a drug; or 3) The denial after November 29, 1990, of an application for a license to operate a motor vehicle for a cause related to the operation of a motor vehicle while intoxicated by alcohol or a drug, while impaired by alcohol or a drug, or while under the influence of alcohol or drug."

The definitions are easier to understand if you break them out into: 1) a conviction, 2) a loss of driver's license even if temporary, and 3) a denial of a driver's license. What has caused some confusion is that the same traffic stop can result in more than one of these. For example, if you reported a temporary license suspension resulting from a traffic stop, and you were later convicted for the same offense, both must be reported. A pilot must report each action to the FAA regardless of whether it arises out of the same incident or circumstances previously reported. But if the same incident, or the same factual circumstances, leads to any combination of convictions and driver's license actions, it will count only once toward the two that will lead to a loss of piloting privileges. A pilot's certificate may (and likely will) be suspended or revoked if the pilot has two or more alcohol- or drug-related motor vehicle actions within a three-year period.

The report must be made no later than 60 days after the motor vehicle action. The regulation requires that the report be in writing. But, contrary to the many other FAA reporting requirements, there is no official form that tells a pilot where the report must be sent and what it must contain. That information is in the regulation itself. The report must be sent to the FAA, Civil Aviation Security Division (AMC-700), Post Office Box 25810, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma 73125. The name of the division has been changed to the Security and Investigations Division but not changed in the regulation. Either name will get you where you want to go. The report also can be faxed to 405/954-4989. It must include the pilot's name, address, date of birth, and airman certificate number. It must contain the type of violation, the date of the conviction or administrative action, and the state that holds the record. Although there is still no official form, the FAA has now included a sample notification letter on its Web site.

Reporting on an FAA medical application form does not satisfy the requirement, even if the report is made within the 60 days. Several years ago I wrote in this column about the case of a pilot who, within the 60 days allowed, disclosed a motor vehicle action on his FAA medical application (see " Pilot Counsel FAA's DWI Rule: A Trap for the Unwary," June 1994 Pilot, and " Pilot Counsel: Flying and Driving," May 2002 Pilot). He was unaware of FAR 61.15(e). Obviously the pilot had no intent to deceive the FAA. Reporting to the FAA is reporting to the FAA, right? Wrong! Technically, the report must be made to the FAA security people, not the medical people. The FAA cut him no slack. He was found in violation of the regulation.

Speaking of the FAA medical application, did you know that every application you submit goes through an extensive procedure to determine if you have complied with FAR 61.15? Did you ever hear of the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Driver Registry? The FAA routinely sends to the National Driver Registry lists of individuals who have applied for FAA medical certificates. The NDR then matches the names against its own records, which contain information on individuals whose driver's licenses have been denied, revoked, suspended, or canceled for cause, or who have been convicted of serious driving offenses. When the FAA receives a computer tape from the NDR with a list of names that match NDR records, an FAA investigator then checks the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System database for details of each pilot's motor vehicle incident. If the NLETS data confirm that an incident was a reportable one, the FAA investigator searches the agency's records to determine whether the pilot filed the required report. Trouble follows if a report is not made. How can the FAA, DOT, and the states get away with invading your privacy with such a computer-matching program even if you've never had an alcohol- or drug-related driving infraction? You gave consent by signing the FAA medical application that contains a consent form. Notice it the next time you renew your medical. If you don't sign, you don't get a medical certificate. Not very consensual, is it?

The effects of a report, or a failure to report, are serious. If a pilot does report a motor vehicle action, it will automatically trigger a review of the pilot's file to determine if the pilot continues to be eligible for his airman certificate (two or more in a three-year period and you are out) or medical certificate (triggering a nightmarish administrative procedure to determine if the pilot has an alcohol or drug problem).

What has turned out to be a more significant effect of this regulation is that if a pilot fails to report even one administrative action or traffic conviction, that is grounds for suspension or revocation of any pilot certificate or rating he or she holds. It is also grounds for denial of an application for a certificate or rating for up to one year after the date of the motor vehicle action.

Hence this warning. Many more pilots lose their certificates for unwittingly failing to report than for having two or more motor vehicle actions in a three-year period. And the problem is more widespread than one would believe.